Minister's dismissal shows up party divisions

Divisions in Zambia's ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) look set to deepen with the sacking of information and broadcasting minister Vernon Mwaanga from the cabinet.

Mwaanga's departure comes in the wake of a growing rift between the 'new deal' administration of President Levy Mwanawasa and the party's old guard, which still remains loyal to former president Frederick Chiluba. Mwaanga claimed he was not fired but had resigned, the Zambian Post reported on Tuesday.

Political analysts said Mwaanga's sacking was expected after he suspended MMD deputy national secretary Mbita Chitala from the party on Monday without consulting the president. The Zambian Post said the MMD decided to suspend Chitala after allegations that he was behind the animosity between senior ruling party members.

"The apparent split in the MMD cannot be overstated just yet, especially since the MMD has always been a party characterised by resignations and expulsions. Mwanawasa himself resigned from the MMD in 1995 after failing to unseat Chiluba for the party presidency.

"The only time the ruling party appeared stable was when they united to get rid of (Kenneth) Kaunda," exective director of the Open Society of Southern Africa, Lucy Muwoweta, told IRIN.

One analyst said Mwaanga's dismissal was part of the growing power struggle within the ruling party that had been caused mainly by Chiluba's continued leadership of the MMD.

"Despite the recent Lusaka High Court order for Chiluba to surrender all government benefits because of his participation in politics, the former president has shown no sign of relinquishing the party presidency," Ross Herbert of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) told IRIN.

Meanwhile, the former Zambian president finds himself embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, with opposition leaders now calling for the lifting of his presidential immunity. They claim Chiluba was responsible for the misuse and mismanagement of billions of kwacha intended for social services.

On Monday, a day before he was fired from his position, Mwaanga told reporters that Chiluba was 'very comfortable to have his immunity removed, provided all those who held public office since 1964 also had their immunity removed so that they could be subjected to an investigation.

"I can't imagine who Chiluba is referring to apart from former President Kenneth Kaunda, who is the only other individual who has immunity, and even then Kaunda was investigated for alleged corruption. We have yet to see any action stemming from that investigation," Muwoweta added.

Many people believe Chiluba hand picked Mwanawasa because he would be easy to control. The latest developments in Zambia perhaps suggest otherwise, with Mwanawasa trying to alter his first cabinet - which analysts suggested was over-stocked with Chiluba's close allies.

"Mwanawasa is also very aware of his own limitations. He does not as yet have a power base strong enough to challenge Chiluba, and by and large, he still relies heavily on Chiluba's constituencies for support," Muwoweta said.

As Zambian politicians attempt to find their loyalties after the contentious 27 December election, Mwanawasa faces huge challenges in reviving the country's ailing economy.

At the time of independence in 1964, Zambia was one of Africa's richest countries, with deep copper deposits and a healthy agricultural sector. But the economy has been ravaged by years of mismanagement and corruption, with many Zambians living on less than US $1 a day.